Yeats' FAIRY AND FOLK
TALES OF THE IRISH PEASANTRY
WITCHES, FAIRY DOCTORS
Witches and fairy doctors
receive their power from opposite dynasties; the
witch from evil spirits and her own malignant will; the fairy doctor from the
fairies,, and a something--a temperament--that is born with him or her. The
first is always feared and hated. The second is gone to for advice, and is never
worse than mischievous. The most celebrated fairy doctors are sometimes people
the fairies loved and carried away, and kept with them for seven years; not that
those the fairies' love are always carried off--they may merely grow silent and
strange, and take to lonely wanderings in the "gentle" places. Such will, in
after-times, be great poets or musicians, or fairy doctors; they must not be
confused with those who have a Lianhaun shee [leannĂ¡n-sidhe], for
the Lianhaun shee lives upon the vitals of its chosen, and they waste and
die. She is of the dreadful solitary fairies. To her have belonged the greatest
of the Irish poets, from Oisin down to the last century.
Those we speak of have for their friends the trooping fairies--the gay and
sociable populace of raths and caves. Great is their knowledge of herbs and
spells. These doctors, when the butter will not come on the milk, or the milk
will not come from the cow, will be sent for to find out if the cause be in the
course of common nature or if there has been witchcraft. Perhaps some old hag in
the shape of a hare has been milking the cattle. Perhaps some user of "the dead
hand" has drawn away the butter to her own chum. Whatever it be, there is the
counter-charm. They will give advice, too, in cases of suspected changelings,
and prescribe for the "fairy blast" (when the fairy strikes anyone a tumour
rises, or they become paralysed. This is called a "fairy blast" or a "fairy
stroke"). The fairies are, of course, visible to them, and many a new-built house have
they bid the owner pull down because it lay on the fairies' road. Lady Wilde
thus describes one who lived in Innis Sark:--"He never touched beer, spirits, or
meat in all his life, but has lived entirely on bread, fruit. and vegetables. A
man who knew him thus describes him--'Winter and summer his dress is the
same--merely a flannel shirt and coat. He will pay his share at a feast, but
neither eats nor drinks of the food and drink set before him. He speaks no
English, and never could be made to learn the English tongue, though he says it
might be used with great effect to curse one's enemy. He holds a burial-ground
sacred, and would not carry away so much as a leaf of ivy from a grave. And he
maintains that the people are right to keep to their ancient usages, such as
never to dig a grave on a Monday, and to carry the coffin three times round the
grave, following the course of the sun, for then the dead rest in peace. Like
the people, also, he holds suicides as accursed; for they believe that all its
dead turn over on their faces if a suicide is laid amongst them.
"'Though well off, he never, even in his youth, thought of taking a wife; nor
was he ever known to love a woman. He stands quite apart from life, and by this
means holds his power over the mysteries. No money will tempt him to impart his
knowledge to another, for if he did he would be struck dead--so he believes. He
would not touch a hazel stick, but carries an ash wand, which he holds in his
hands when he prays, laid across his knees; and the whole of his life is devoted
to works of grace and charity, and though now an old man, he has never had a
day's sickness. No one has ever seen him in a rage, nor heard an angry word from
his lips but once, and then being under great irritation, he recited the Lord's
Prayer backwards as an imprecation on his enemy. Before his death he will reveal
the mystery of his power, but not till the hand of death is on him for
certain.'" When he does reveal it, we may be sure it will be to one person
only--his successor. There are several such doctors in County Sligo, really well
up in herbal medicine by all accounts, and my friends find them in their own
All these things go on merrily. The spirit of the age laughs in vain, and is
itself only a ripple to pass, or already passing away.
The spells of the witch are altogether different; they smell of the grave.
One of the most powerful is the charm of the dead hand. With a hand cut from a
corpse they, muttering words of power, will stir a well and skim from its
surface a neighbour's butter.
A candle held between the fingers of the dead hand can never be blown out.
This is useful to robbers, but they appeal for the suffrage of the lovers
likewise, for they can make love-potions by drying and grinding into powder the
liver of a black cat. Mixed with tea, and poured from a black teapot, it is
infallible. There are many stories of its success in quite recent years, but,
unhappily, the spell must be continually renewed, or all the love may turn into
hate. But the central notion of witchcraft everywhere is the power to change
into some fictitious form, usually in Ireland a hare or a cat. Long ago a wolf
was the favourite. Before Giraldus Cambrensis came to Ireland, a monk wandering
in a forest at night came upon two wolves, one of whom was dying. The other
entreated him to give the dying wolf the last sacrament. He said the mass, and
paused when he came to the viaticum. The other, on seeing this, tore the skin
from the breast of the dying wolf, laying bare the form of an old woman. Thereon
the monk gave the sacrament. Years afterwards he confessed the matter, and when
Giraldus visited the country, was being tried by the synod of the bishops. To
give the sacrament to an animal was a great sin. Was it a human being or an
animal? On the advice of Giraldus they sent the monk, with papers describing the
matter, to the Pope for his decision. The result is not stated.
Giraldus himself was of opinion that the wolf-form was an illusion, for, as
he argued, only God can change the form. His opinion coincides with tradition,
Irish and otherwise.
It is the notion of many who have written about these things that magic is
mainly the making of such illusions. Patrick Kennedy tells a story of a girl
who, having in her hand a sod of grass containing, unknown to herself,
a four-leaved shamrock, watched a
conjurer at a fair. Now, the four-leaved shamrock guards its owner from all
pishogues (spells), and when the others were. staring at a cock carrying
along the roof of a shed a huge beam in its bill, she asked them what they found
to wonder at in a cock with a straw. The conjurer begged from her the sod of
grass, to give to his horse, he said. Immediately she cried out in terror that
the beam would fall and kill somebody.
This, then, is to be remembered--the form of an enchanted thing is a fiction
and a caprice.
Notes: A WITCH TRIAL
The last trial for witchcraft in Ireland--there were never very many--thus
given in MacSkimin's History of Carrickfergus: "1711, March 31st, Janet
Mean, of Braid-island; Janet Latimer, Irish-quarter, Carrickfergus; Janet
Millar, Scotch-quarter, Carrickfergus; Margaret Mitchel, Kilroot; Catharine
M'Calmond, Janet Liston, alias Seller, Elizabeth Seller, and Janet
Carson, the four last from Island Magee, were tried here, in the County of
Antrim Court, for witchcraft."
Their alleged crime was tormenting a young woman, called Mary Dunbar, about
eighteen years of age, at the house of James Hattridge, Island Magee, and at
other places to which she was removed. The circumstances sworn on the trial were
"The afflicted person being, in the month of February, 1711, in the house of
James Hattridge, Island Magee (which had been for some time believed to be
haunted by evil spirits), found an apron on the parlour floor, that had been
missing some time, tied with five strange knots, which she loosened.
"On the following day she was suddenly seized with a violent pain in her
thigh, and afterwards fell into fits and ravings; and, on recovering, said she
was tormented by several women, whose dress and personal appearance she minutely
described. Shortly after, she was again seized with the like fits, and on
recovering she accused five other women of tormenting her, describing them also.
The accused persons being brought from different parts of the country, she
appeared to suffer extreme fear and additional torture as they approached the
hous"It was also deposed that strange noises, as of whistling, scratching, etc.,
were heard in the house, and that a sulphureous smell was observed in the rooms;
that stones, turf, and the like were thrown about the house, and the coverlets,
etc., frequently taken off the beds and made up in the shape of a corpse; and
that a bolster once walked out of a room into the kitchen with a nightgown about
it! It likewise appeared in evidence that in some of her fits three strong men
were scarcely able to hold her in the bed; that at times she vomited feathers,
cotton yam, pins, and buttons; and that on one occasion she slid off the bed and
was laid on the floor, as if supported and drawn by an invincible power. The
afflicted person was unable to give any evidence on the trial, being during that
time dumb, but had no violent fit during its continuance."
In defence of the accused, it appeared that they were mostly sober,
industrious people, who attended public worship, could repeat the Lord's Prayer,
and had been known to pray both in public and private; and that some of them had
lately received communion.
Judge Upton charged the jury, and observed on the regular attendance of
accused at public worship; remarking that he thought it improbable that real
witches could so far retain the form of religion as to frequent the religious
worship of God, both publicly and privately, which had been proved in favour of
the accused. He concluded by giving his opinion "that the jury could not bring
them in guilty upon the sole testimony of the afflicted person's visionary
images". He was followed by Judge Macarthy, who differed from him in opinion
"and thought the jury might, from the evidence, bring them in guilty", which
they accordingly did.
This trial lasted from six o'clock in the morning till two in the afternoon;
and the prisoners were sentenced to be imprisoned twelve months, and to stand
four times in the pillory of Carrickfergus.
Tradition says that the people were much exasperated against these
unfortunate persons, who were severely pelted in the pillory with boiled cabbage
stalks and the like, by which one of them had an eye beaten out.